He had, so far as we know, taken no steps to have his plays published; the sixteen that severally appeared in his lifetime were printed, apparently, without his co-operation, usually in quarto form, and in various degrees of textual corruption. Stirred by these piracies, two of his former associates, John Heming and Henry Condell, issued in 1623 the First Folio, containing in one tall volume of some nine hundred double-column pages the authoritative text of thirty-six of the plays. “We have but … done an office to the dead,” said the foreword, “… without ambition either of self-profit or fame; only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend … alive as was our Shakespeare.” The volume could then be bought for a pound; each of the approximately two hundred extant copies is now valued at £17,000, more highly than any book except Gutenberg’s Bible.
Shakespeare’s reputation fluctuated curiously in time. Milton (1630) praised “sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child,” but during the Puritan interval, when the theaters were closed (1642–60), the fame of the bard faded. It revived with the Restoration. Sir John Suckling, in his portrait by Vandyck (in the Frick Gallery, New York), holds the First Folio open at Hamlet. Dryden, the oracle of the later seventeenth century, commended Shakespeare as having, “of all modern, and perhaps ancient, poets … the largest and most comprehensive soul … always great when some great occasion is presented to him,” but “many times flat, insipid, his comic art degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast.”102 John Evelyn noted in his diary (1661) that “the old plays disgust this refined age, since his Majesty’s being so long abroad”—i.e., since Charles II and the returning royalists had brought to England the dramatic norms of France; soon afterward the Restoration theater produced the bawdiest dramas in modern literature. Shakespeare’s plays were still performed, but usually in “adaptation” by Dryden, Otway, or other models of Restoration taste.
The eighteenth century restored the plays to Shakespeare. Nicholas Rowe published (1709) the first critical edition and the first biography; Pope and Johnson issued editions and commentaries; Betterton, Garrick, Kemble, and Mrs. Siddons made Shakespeare popular on the stage as never before; and Thomas Bowdler made his own name a verb by publishing (1818) an expurgated version omitting parts “which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” In the early nineteenth century the romantic movement took Shakespeare to its heart, and the superlatives of Coleridge, Hazlitt, De Quincey, and Lamb transformed him into a tribal god.
France demurred. By 1700 its literary standards had been formed by Ronsard, Malherbe, and Boileau in the Latin tradition of order, logical form, polite taste, and rational control; it had adopted, in Racine, the classical rules of drama; it was disturbed by Shakespeare’s windy word play, his bubbling torrent of phrases, his emotional storms, his coarse clowns, his mingling of comedy with tragedy. Voltaire, returning from England in 1729, brought with him some appreciation of Shakespeare and “first showed the French a few pearls which I found in his enormous dunghill”;103 but when someone ranked the Englishman above Racine, Voltaire rose to the defense of France by calling Shakespeare “an amiable barbarian.”104 His Philosophical Dictionary (1765) made some amends: “In this same man there are passages which exalt the imagination and penetrate the heart…. He reaches sublimity without having searched for it.”105 Mme. de Staël (1804), Guizot (1821), and Villemain (1827) helped France to bear with Shakespeare. Finally the translation of the plays into good French prose by Victor Hugo’s son François won Shakespeare the respect of France, though never the devout admiration there accorded to Racine.
The bard had a better press in Germany, where no native playwright contested the prize. It was Germany’s first great dramatist, Gotthold Lessing, who in 1759 informed his countrymen that Shakespeare was superior to all other poets, ancient or modern; and Herder supported him. August von Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, and other leaders of the Romantic school raised the Shakespearean banner, and Goethe contributed an enthusiastic discussion of Hamlet in Wilhelm Meister (1796).106 Shakespeare became popular on the German stage; and for a time German scholarship snatched the lead from England in the clarification of Shakespeare’s life and plays.
For those brought up in the aura of Shakespeare an objective estimate or comparison is impossible. Only one who knows the language, the religion, the art, the customs, and the philosophy of the Periclean Greeks will feel the unequaled dignity of the Dionysian tragic drama, the stark simplicity and inexorable logic of its structure, its proud self-restraint in word and deed, the moving commentary of its choral chants, the high enterprise of seeing man in the perspective of his cosmic place and destiny. Only one who knows the French language and character, and the background of the grand siècle, can feel, in the plays of Corneille and Racine, not merely the majesty and music of their verse, but as well the heroic effort of reason to overspread emotion and impulse, the stoic adherence to difficult classic norms, the concentration of the drama into a few tense hours summarizing and deciding lives. Only one who knows English in its Elizabethan fullness, who can ride with gusto the Elizabethan winds of rhetoric, lyric, and vituperation, who puts no bounds to the theater’s mirroring of nature and release of imagination, can bring to Shakespeare’s plays their merited acceptance with open arms and heart; but such a man will tremble with delight at the splendor of their speech, and he will be moved to the depths of his spirit to follow and fathom their thought. These are the three epochal gifts of the world’s drama, and we must, despite our limitations, welcome them all to our deepening, thanking our heritage for Greek wisdom, French beauty, and Elizabethan life.
(But, of course, Shakespeare is supreme.)
I. Cf. Two Gentlemen of Verona, V, ii, 3,6; Merry Wives of Windsor, II, i.
II. Ben Jonson pounced upon this in his talks with Drummond at Hawthornden.21 Shakespeare took it from a novel by Robert Greene—a university graduate. Under Ottokar II (r. 1253–78) Bohemia extended her rule to the Adriatic shores.22
III. “There is no reason to reject this report.”—Sir E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, I, 89.